When Alaskans voted to recriminalize marijuana possession last fall, they were swayed by a familiar argument: Lenient treatment of pot "sends the wrong message," encouraging young people to use drugs. But a recent study by two economists at the University of Baltimore casts doubt on this bit of conventional wisdom.
Based on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Clifford E. Thies and Charles Register concluded that the decriminalization of marijuana in 11 states generally has not had a significant impact on drug use by teenagers and young adults. They found that factors such as religion, marital status, and education are far more important.
The annual survey provides information about 12,686 Americans who were between the ages of 14 and 21 in 1979. Using responses for 1984 and 1988, Thies and Register analyzed the ways in which various factors, including decriminalization, affected the prevalence and frequency of marijuana, alcohol, and cocaine use.
The rates of drug use were slightly higher in the states that had no prison penalty for minor possession: In 1984, for example, about 27 percent of the respondents in the decriminalization states had smoked pot in the previous month, compared to about 25 percent in the other states. But Thies and Register found that the higher rates were due primarily to population differences.
The one exception was cocaine use in 1984. Thies and Register found that residents of decriminalization states were more likely to have tried cocaine, even when demographic factors were taken into account. But those who used cocaine were less likely to do so frequently. "If anything," write Thies and Register, "the large number of users of small amounts of cocaine in decriminalization states refutes the argument that decriminalization of marijuana would lead to compulsive use of more dangerous drugs."